Skip to content

Fochabers: St Mary’s RC Church

James Bruce & Co., 1843 — organ surveyed June 2023

Historical overview

The organ of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Fochabers, has an unusually straightforward history. Installed in 1843 (and remaining ever since), the instrument remains largely intact apart from the loss of the case veneer and the installation of an electric blower (c.1970). It is thought that the tuning slides were added to the pipework at the same time.

The Church and first organ
The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1825 and work completed in 1829. The Architect was J Gillespie Graham based on a design by Bishop James Kyle. The building has a simple yet attractive ‘Gothic’ stone façade with pinnacled buttresses, traceried windows and parapet above the central door[i]. The present church has a chancel which was a later addition from 1905. No evidence has been forthcoming about an organ at the time of opening.

In a letter, dated 26 February 1842, to Bishop Kyle, a number of men from the choir complain about singing the parts of music allocated to them – specifically the bass part as that only had one singer. To help rectify this, a “small organ” was identified and could be obtained from a Mr Alexander Simpson. Although no specific mention is made of the nature of the instrument, the letter refers only to one “gentleman at present in Fochabers” who could as assist with the move and with tuning and that this would likely take one day, perhaps suggesting a small instrument akin to a barrel organ, but perhaps with a few keys[ii].

The 1843 James Bruce Organ
By 1842, James Bruce of Edinburgh writes to Reverend William Cavan (parish priest at Fochabers) to detail the prospect of a new organ for St Marys:

“Being now returned home I lose no time in writing you according to promise. I found on my return that we have now in a great state of forwardness an organ which will suit your Chapel – it contains 6 stops – and is built on a proper Church scale – You are to understand that there is a very great difference in the build of an Organ according to where it is intended to be placed – we have the Chamber scale, & the Church scale – the difference is that a Church Organ with 6 stops has fully double the power of a Chamber Organ with the same number of stops, owing to having a powerful large Bellows [sic]; and the pipes are made of a large Calabre [sic], on purpose to increase the volume of sound: On the other hand the chamber organs are built so that the tones will be soft and delicate, but without body of power so as to fill a large space.

I am thus particular, purposely to explain the answerableness of this organ for a large sized Chapel. The Organ itself is built, but the case is note made. I have enclosed a drawing [not with the letter now] of a Gothic front which will correspond with the Architecture of your Chapel.” [iii]

It is of interest that the organ is already built, given that second hand pipes (possibly by rival builder David Hamilton) are found in the instrument. Bruce clearly didn’t want to have to add any further stops to the instrument and at great length he tries to convince the clergymen that adding swell would weaken the organ which, although untrue, seems to have worked at persuading against it. Although it is unfortunate that the drawing no longer accompanies the letter, Bruce does give the stop list and all other technical details (composition pedals, blowing handle, etc) which all correspond exactly with the instrument as it survives today. This proves that the 8-foot flute stop – which is unusual to this style and would more likely have been a sesquialtera – is original to the instrument. The letter continues and, when discussing the cost of the instrument, Bruce writes:

“I find in calculating the prime cost of this Organ that the sum named by the Bishop [Bishop Kyle] and yourself, £80, will be considerably below the mark of its real value but as I am extremely anxious to retain the Business patronage of the Catholic Clergy, I will be induced to let you have this Organ as low as possible, even at a sacrifice”. [iv]

It is clear that Bruce was trying to impress the clergymen with his description of the instrument and the expression of its full church tone and its suitability to the chapel. The final paragraph detailing the cost of the instrument perhaps comes across a little begging. To give this context, it is perhaps useful to note that the National Records of Scotland hold sequestration documents for Bruce’s 1839 and 1841 bankruptcies and here – although making a loss on this particular instrument – he seems to have been keen to drum up business.

Less than one month later, on 6th October 1842, Bruce writes again to Rev Cavan stressing that “ [the organ] is really a great bargain at the price I have offered it to you for…and the price will scarcely pay the prime cost…I expect I could easily have it put up in the chapel before Christmas”.[v] In this same letter, Bruce once again resorts to convincing the clergy that the organ should not be enlarged as this would incur extra cost (and presumably add to the loss Bruce already claims to be making). As not to thwart future business, he does reassure the clergy that this could be easily done at a later date:

“The experience of adding the lower octave to the open diapason Bass will be at least £10, & perhaps £12, being an expensive addition as it gives an enlargement to the whole organ. This addition however you could get made at any future time: at the same time I must say that very few persons would find out the want of it”.[vi]

Alas, by 16th December 1842, another letter details that plans have not worked out as previously intimated. Bruce claims of not being able to progress the Fochabers organ as he is being held captive by John Home Drummond of Millearn House, Auchterarder, until he completes work on the instrument there:

“Rev and Dear Sir 
Your respected letter dated the 9th, I only received last night owing to my being from home – I have now been here for 9 weeks making some large additions to a splendid organ belonging to Mr John Home Drummond of this place – it was built by the first builder in London within 12 months “Mr Hill” & they have instructed me with improving it which I reckon something towards my business name it will contain 30 stops when we get it complete. 

Your new organ is now almost completed but from the way in which I am at present situated as above, I am sorry it will not be in my power to get it in readyness [sic] for Christmas. I have been trying 2 or 3 times to get away from this but find it out of the question as he will not hear of it. He and his Lady are stoping [sic] from going to London till I get his organ completed this will take me and 3 men still 3 weeks to do. I am thus particular to show you how I am inundated [? this word is illegible at the page edge] but I am in expectation that the goodness of the organ I am furnishing you will make up for whatever disappointment the not getting it by Christmas will cause. When I get home your organ will take me about a week to finish when it will be immediately sent off and I follow to put it up.” [vii]

Finally, the organ arrives in early March 1843 although a letter between Rev Cavan and Bishop Kyle states:

“The organ arrived on Wednesday, and Mr. Bruce yesterday, but you will see from the enclosed that Mr. Bruce is a different person from our old friend.”.

Unfortunately, exactly what was enclosed is unclear as the item no longer accompanies the original letter, leaving the last statement, above, a little ambiguous. It is known that financial troubles were still plaguing Bruce and only two weeks later, 31st March 1843, would be sequestered for a third time – the sequestration document lists  the £80 owed to Bruce for the St Mary’s organ.[viii] With this in mind, it could be suggested that a letter (or note) was enclosed that had a less than friendly tone or – less likely – an early calotype, produced by  music publisher and writer John Muir Wood,  of the ailing James Bruce – he died just a decade later.[ix]

[i] [accessed 20/06/2023]

[ii] Notes of Dr Jim Inglis (referencing quotes from a letter to Bishop Kyle held in the Scottish Catholics Archive, SCA IM 5/25/2)

[iii] Letter from James Bruce to William Cavan, September 12, 1842 – Scottish Catholics Archive, SCA BL 6/342/6

[iv] Idem

[v] Letter from James Bruce to William Cavan, October 6, 1842 – Scottish Catholics Archive, SCA BL 6/342/7

[vi] Idem

[vii] Letter from James Bruce to William Cavan, December 16, 1842 – Scottish Catholics Archive, SCA PL3/290/4

[viii] Sequestration document for James Bruce, 31st March 1843, National Records of Scotland (formerly Scottish Records Office, SRO ref: CS279/334/B201)

[ix] Email correspondence from Alan Buchan, [27.06.23]